Our food has arrived. Jolie's pasta is simple, with pieces of chicken in a tomato sauce. But my salmon is a part of an elaborate creation, built into a tower, with an ornate garnish of fennel, heirloom tomatoes and some other diced vegetables that I fail to identify. It looks ridiculous and when she sees my plate she bursts out laughing.
Given how much they travel I wonder where they consider home. "Home is wherever we are." Does she feel rootless? "Yes, but happily. I'm very bad at staying in one place. I'm also bad at sitting still. I was a terrible student at school. But there's so much to explore in the world ... so I love travel. If you can travel I think it's the best way to raise kids."
This reference to her youth reminds me how much she has changed over the past 15 years since she came to prominence with her role in the high school cyber thriller Hackers. Back then she seemed an archetypal Hollywood wild child. The daughter of actors Jon Voight and Marcheline Bertrand, she talked of self-harming in her teens and by her late twenties she had been married twice—first to Hackers co-star, English actor Jonny Lee Miller, and then to the American actor and singer Billy Bob Thornton. She had an interest in knives, acquired several tattoos—including one of Thornton's name on her arm (it has since been removed) and wore a locket containing his blood.
The controversies accompanied a rising career. In 2000 she won an Oscar for her startling performance as a patient in a mental hospital in Girl, Interrupted and soon became a fully fledged action star with the role of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2001) and in films such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005). It was on that set that she first met Pitt, and the pair have since become Hollywood's premier power couple, their fame magnified to the extent that they are, according to their friend, actor Matt Damon, "like prisoners." The media scrutiny shows no sign of letting up. Last year the couple sued the News of the World when it printed a false story alleging that they were breaking up; I ask if she shed any tears at the newspaper's recent closure. "I did hear something about that ... clearly I never read it. So it's hard to know how much of a loss it is."
She has spent most of her adult life in the public eye. But the person I have read about before our lunch couldn't seem more different from the poised woman opposite me. Motherhood has changed her, she says, particularly with respect to her career. "I've never not been grateful to be an actor ... but I think when I was younger I needed [acting] more. I was trying to question things in life so you find these characters that help you find things and grow."
She explains that her relationship with acting has changed over the years. "It's like being in therapy, in a way," she says, taking a forkful of penne and chicken. "You're drawn to certain roles because they question something about life, or about love, or about freedom. You ask these questions as you grow up: am I strong enough, am I sane enough? Do I understand love, do I understand myself?" Now, she adds, "I'm older and I know who I am ... and I'm less interested in the character helping me answer something ... than in being able to answer it for myself, as a woman, as an adult, with my family." We talk about Salt, an action film released last year in which Jolie punches, shoots and kicks her way through the CIA, Secret Service and a cabal of rogue Russian spies. The title role was initially written for a man but the script was modified when it became clear she was interested. "I'd just had the twins," she recalls. "I'd been in a nightgown for a very, very long time. And I was sitting in the hospital breastfeeding and reading this script in my nightgown, feeling so soft and mama ... and I was flipping these pages and it was all fighting and shooting guns. I thought, 'That's what I need. I need to get out of my nightgown and I need a gun.' I'm sure many a woman who has been through childbirth has thought 'It would be nice to get a little physical, get a little wild ... to remember what that other side is like.' "
She says she is not thinking of quitting acting any time soon. "But I don't love it as much [as I did]. I love being a mom." She is, however, clearly excited about being behind the camera for the first time. "I prefer it to acting," she says. I ask if she drew on her experiences with the directors she has worked with. "I think I've learnt something from all of them—even the ones I didn't like." I try to get her to dish the dirt on the latter but she politely declines. She is full of praise for Michael Winterbottom, who directed her in A Mighty Heart (2007), the story of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was abducted and killed in Pakistan. "I also learned a lot from Clint Eastwood [her director in 2008's Changeling] about how to appreciate the members of the crew, empowering them to do their job. I never worked with David Fincher [director of Fight Club and The Social Network] but I know him as a friend and have seen how meticulous he is, his attention to detail, how hard he works—even when you're too tired to go back into the room—to make sure that you've got it right."
Fincher is in the frame to direct her in the forthcoming Cleopatra, but Jolie hints that we may see less of her on screen in future. "As Brad and I get older we're going to do fewer films. I've been working for a long time, he's been working for a long time ... we've had a nice run and don't want to be doing this our whole lives. There are a lot of other things to do."
China is on her list of places still to explore, and she would love to see Burma, "but not in the wrong circumstances", given that the country is under the control of an oppressive military junta. "And Iran. I'd love to go [to] Iran." Her dream, however, is to "cross the Sahara. It takes 28 days ... it would have to be on a camel. I wonder if I could do it in pieces and station the kids along the way," she muses.
I tell her it sounds ideal for their nomadic family and we stand to say goodbye. There's no handshake this time, although she leans forward to kiss me on each cheek. Then she walks away through the now half-empty restaurant, out into the California sunshine, back to work.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.
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